Planned Obsolescence of the Teacher

My big surprise on returning to school from paternity leave was that one of our religion teachers was leaving at the end of the year.  So the last month has been filled with all the administrative work that goes into hiring a new teacher, further chopping up my time and rendering me unfit for noble pursuits like blogging or video games.

The process of advertising for a position, judging resumes, and bringing in candidates is one that I enjoy.  Hey, at least it’s not grading!  But it does truly have its own charm as well.  It’s a good time to reflect on my own teaching mortality.

A teacher is always–if they are any good–working toward their own obsolescence.  It’s not unlike parenting, although on a shorter time-frame: by the time you are done with your students, they need to be free(r) to pursue the truth of [whatever subject you are teaching].  I’m fortunate enough to teach boys about the Most Important Topics In the Universe, and I get three cracks at equipping them to face life–and later, Judgment–on their own.

One of the gravest vices we teachers can have is a desire to be (or be seen to be) indispensable.  The level of influence we have over lives, and the experience of being there to walk someone into a new level of understanding, is heady stuff indeed.  But the feeling of that great good is dangerous, for we can easily be tempted to set up booths there and dwell in that moment forever.

Teaching is not a vanity project; children are not the supporting cast in the story of Me.  The teacher is the least important person in the room on the final analysis, and that’s true even if we are talking about biology or comparative politics.  The vice of indispensability turns the fun of teaching into a drug.  Like every disordered desire, it is self- and other-destructive.  Teachers who cultivate that feeling, who revel in being the smartest person in the room and who educate, if at all, by accident, are terrible teachers.

And so from the first day we make plans for the day of graduation.  We lay up store for the day our students have to work a syllogism in front of a tyrannical college professor or gin up some statistics for a math-inept boss.  Knowing the day of our death allows us a certain clarity and unity of action that people don’t generally get to have in life.

It’s embarrassing, for all that, how hard it still can be and how many people still don’t adequately plan and teach.  Every teacher must decrease, that students may increase.  On they day they leave, or perhaps on the first day they must stand on their own, the goal is simple: they must know they can do it.

But this is also true administratively, and so we return to my current project at work.  If I get to die each year my students graduate, I will also have a Last Day of Teaching.  Preparing for that death is no less important.

The task of teaching boys at St. Anselm’s Abbey School will, God willing, go on long after I have thrown my last Aquinas fastball.  One of my professional responsibilities is to prepare for that day: to hire a partner who can replace me, who can do everything I do now but do it better, and who knows that one day they will have to do the same.

The vanity project is real, my friends.  People reach a certain level of comfort with their teaching reputation and spend years propping it up by hiring inferior teaching colleagues to make themselves look better.  When I was first hired these moons gone by, I benefited enormously from “reputation by contrast” with my immediate predecessors.  As a department chair with major influence over new hires, I could perpetuate that reputation and never improve as a teacher.

That would make me a terrible teacher.  I am replaceable, although I should strive every day to make that harder and harder.  But part of that striving is finding and training my replacement, accepting the diminishment of my teaching skills, and rejoicing in the long-term health of the school that never, in any way, at any time, should depend primarily on Me.

Sometimes we talk about the Hit By a Bus principle: what would we do if, God forbid, this guy never comes back tomorrow?  But it’s not just a CYA principle.  That may be what forces us to really look at the problem, but a healthy approach to teaching incorporates it into everything we do.

I could and probably should make some direct connections to the Rule at this point, but I’m up to my ears in resumes and candidate invitations.  But hey, I turned that into a blogpost!

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